Recession had America tuning in not heading out


"Take me out to the ballgame," the old song goes. Americans, however, may have been too busy channel surfing to do that this year.

Television, it turns out, was where Americans turned to satisfy their craving for sports in the recession-plagued year of 2009.

With fewer dollars to spend, many fans resorted to the "cave model," hunkering down at home to watch the game instead of heading to the ballpark to see it live.

Buoyed by the Yankees in the World Series, baseball’s TV ratings were up. The NFL is still the NFL — no slowing down America’s favorite televised sport. College football ratings increased over 2008 and the NBA enjoyed its best viewership since the days of Michael Jordan. Advertisers could bank on more eyeballs for their buck, though they weren’t always so fast to sign on.

"One thing you might see more of in the future is that people are going to take the money they would’ve invested in tickets and invest in a home theater system, so they can stay home and watch it on TV," said Bill Sutton of University of Central Florida’s DeVos business management department. "I call it going back to the cave model."

Through 14 weeks this year, 20 NFL games had been blacked out because they failed to sell out, compared to only nine all last season. The league also reported a 3 percent decline in attendance. But games on TV were averaging 16.7 million viewers, the highest average at this point in the season since 1989 — an encouraging statistic for advertisers though it still didn’t prevent Pepsi from ending its 23-year run of placing ads on the Super Bowl telecast.

"In 2010, each of our beverage brands has a strategy and marketing platform that will be less about a singular event and more about a movement," spokeswoman Nicole Bradley explained.

Indeed, the changing media landscape brought about new business models, while the shrinking economy restricted profits — making it a mixed-bag kind of year for the sports industry.

Baseball attendance decreased by 6.9 percent, to its lowest levels since 2003, though part of the decline could be attributed to the Yankees and Mets moving into smaller ballparks.

The Yankees opened their new stadium and tried to sell front-row tickets for $2,500, but quickly found there was little market at that price and discounted them by $1,000. As the season progressed, they found that the old formula of winning — and being in New York — keeps the turnstiles moving.

A number of NBA teams went on aggressive price-slashing programs, trying to sell affordability — never a hallmark of a league that pays some of its bench players $9 million a season — to fans who were feeling priced out of the game even before the downturn hit.

Many NHL and baseball teams did the same thing. Take out a few exceptions — notably, the Yankees, Mets and Dallas Cowboys, with their inflated prices in new stadiums — and the price of tickets for America’s four major sports went down slightly in 2009.

"The term ‘downselling’ is becoming part of the nomenclature," Sutton said. "If you had a full season-ticket holder, you’re trying to keep him connected by selling him half a season. People are moving down. They’re going to fewer games. But the teams want them to keep going to some games. The whole idea is to maintain the relationship."

No sport had a more multifaceted — and strained — economic relationship with its fans and sponsors than golf.

Tournaments are largely dependent upon sponsors, many of which come from sectors that have been beaten and battered — such as banking and automotive. The LPGA lost six official-money events from the schedule in 2009. One of the most venerable tournaments on the PGA Tour, the January stop at Torrey Pines, could be known simply as The San Diego Open now that Buick has pulled out and a replacement hasn’t been found.

Buick had severed ties with Tiger Woods well before details of his private life pushed him into a hiatus. Woods’ absence from a tournament traditionally cuts TV ratings by about half and makes those tournaments less lucrative to already skittish sponsors and golf fans. It could have a profound long-term effect on participation, as well, given that his presence has been credited for bringing more people to the game.

"But it was the economy that affected golf participation as much as anything," said Mike May of the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.

The time commitment and expense for golf has helped flatten numbers for the sport. A recent study showed participation was down 1.4 million players since 2005, to 28.6 million.

But golf is hardly the only participatory sport that suffered.

The number of gym memberships is on target to stay flat, or decrease, for the first time in 20 years.

Consumers spent 2009 trying to make their workout shoes, tennis rackets and baseball gloves last longer, May said, and little league teams that used to take cross-country junkets for tournaments were increasingly staying local.

"The desire to play and exercise is as great as it’s ever been, but people’s economic ability to do so has been compromised," said May, whose group charts trends in sales and participation. "We’re kind of in uncharted waters for everyone."

Which resulted in some interesting headlines this year.

NASCAR, facing a money drain because it’s one of the most sponsor-heavy leagues in sports, suspended preseason testing before the Daytona 500 to help teams save money.

NBA commissioner David Stern conceded that betting on NBA games might be a way to create a new revenue stream — a consideration that has long been thought of as heresy for almost all American sports.

The sales and demand for luxury suites — a big revenue producer for teams — declined. Sutton said that as corporations try to justify paying for them, they should no longer be marketed as suites, but "business development centers."

The Arena Football League folded, though in a bit of good news, a new league is being formed to replace it, with some of the old teams coming back. The WNBA reduced roster sizes and suffered the loss of one of its signature franchises, the Houston Comets.

Some NFL teams started selling advertising space on their practice jerseys.

Sutton predicts that by 2011, one of America’s major sports leagues will expand that practice — common in Europe but not anywhere close to accepted in the United States — and either sell space on game jerseys or name a team or teams after a high-paying sponsor.

"The Cleveland Nike Air Maxes?"

"The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, brought to you by Budweiser?"

Indeed, the economy has forced fans to look at sports differently, and forced the sports themselves to imagine things they’ve never thought of before.

The main message, however, stays the same: Eager for diversions, Americans still love their sports — even when they can’t afford them so much.

"It bounces back, I just don’t think it bounces back to 2006 levels," Sutton said. "In sports, we used to say we were competing for the entertainment dollar, but we’re not doing that anymore. Now, we’re just competing for the dollar."